Changüí: The Sound of Guantánamo is a lavishly designed, three-disc set from Petaluma Records that presents music fans with an increasingly rare opportunity in the 21st century: to hear music from a rural Cuban culture virtually undocumented until now. Journalist, producer, and radio host Gianluca Tramontana has been visiting Cuba since the 1990s. He spent the better part of three years (2017 through 2019) traveling the Guantánamo province located in the extreme eastern part of the country, far from Havana. Armed with a high-quality digital recorder, he captured these performers in the streets, at home, on porches, and in backyards. He took more than 200 field recordings to New York and played them for friend and Grammy-winning archival producer Steve Rosenthal. He heard the intensity, energy, and raw, deep sense of physical presence (as well as more than a little virtuosity) in the music Tramontana captured. With assistance from mix engineer Ed McEntee, and mastering engineer Michael Graves, they culled the selection to 51 tracks -- three-and-half-hours of music. This obsessively detailed three-disc collection provides a heady aural portrait of the region's deeply organic party music. (The word "changüí" translates as "party.") Tramontana's field recordings offer a fantastic sampling of joyous, foot-stomping, largely improvised music, a seldom-heard, 150-year-old link to the evolved styles of danzon and son.
The instrumentation used in changüí revolves around the tres, a bare-bones guitar-like instrument with three or six strings. It is accompanied by marimbula, a box-like instrument that physically resembles a kalimba played with the thumbs, taking the place of a bass. Add to this congas, bongos, guiro (a hollowed gourd with notches, played by rubbing a stick across them), shakers, and more. Vocals are sung in multi-part harmonies and chanted in call-and-response, creating hooky refrains that can be sung by one person or dozens, adding to the music's celebratory feel. The interplay between the melodic tres and complex rhythmic interplay is remarkable; it emerges as a grooving whole from seemingly contradictory parts. Check disc one's anthemic opener "Changüí en Yateras" by Grupo Estrellas Campesinas, or disc two's "Guajira Cubana" by Las Flores del Changüí and "La Rumba Te Llama" by Grupo Familia Vera, as well as disc three's "En Casa de Bella-Changüí como Yo" by the irrepressible Mikikí with his Brothers. All display almost kaleidoscopic variations in texture, melody, harmony, and of course, rhythm. The gorgeous cigar box design contains a hardbound, 128-page book with an introduction by Chico O'Farrill, a liner essay, and copious notes, lyrics, and translations by Tramontana, plus essays from historians José Cuenca Sosa and Gabriel Rojas Perez, World Circuit's Nick Gold, and musician/professor Benjamin Lapidus. There are dozens of photos, map illustrations, and artist bios. Changüí: The Sound of Guantánamo is arguably the global roots music release of 2021. It's an irresistibly listenable, infectiously danceable musicological document that will keep listeners engaged and returning for more.